By: Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis, Deputy Director
The Manar al-Athar open-access photo-archive (based at the University of Oxford, directed by Judith McKenzie) covers buildings and art in the areas of the former Roman empire which later came under Islamic rule (e.g. Syro-Palestine/the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa), from ca. 300 BC to the present, but especially Roman, late antique, and early Islamic art, architecture, and sacred sites. The searchable images are freely-downloadable at high resolution for teaching, research, heritage projects, and publication.
The continuity of classical (Greco-Roman) influence in late antique and Byzantine art and architecture is well established, but the links between the classical and Islamic worlds remains less explored. This continuity and transformation is conveyed by Manar al-Athar’s name which means ‘Guide to Archaeology in Arabic’, and in Egypt Manara refers to both the Lighthouse of Alexandria (Pharos) and to minaret.
By demonstrating the shared heritage of these periods and regions, the photo-archive is also a useful teaching resource for classical civilization and Near Eastern archaeology courses, with low resolution photographs for Powerpoint. The images download with the caption and credit line in the metadata.
The reception and redeployment of classical iconography and forms occurred in the most important religious monuments of the early Islamic, Umayyad caliphate (661–750) with its capital in Damascus. And example of this is the use acanthus scrolls on the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem (691).
The architect of the Great Mosque in Damascus (706–714/15) envisioned the decoration as relating to the structure when he innovatively designed its porticoes with the appearance of two storeys, but without floors on their upper levels, so that the back walls provided a monumental canvas for mosaics, such as the famous landscape panorama.
The ‘desert castles’ are the most substantial surviving examples of Umayyad secular architecture. Unlike contemporary Islamic religious buildings, the carved reliefs, floor mosaics, and wall-paintings of the ‘desert castles’ included figures and animals, as in the early eighth-century bathhouse at Qusayr ‘Amra, east of Amman.
The Manar al-Athar photo-archive’s ca. 3,000 photographs of floor mosaics show how classical imagery and motifs were re-purposed in Christian and Jewish buildings, such as the Roman wolf with Romulus and Remus in the mosaics museum in Maarat an-Numan, caught up in the cross-fire of the Syrian war.
Those images, which were contributed by mosaics expert Sean Leatherbury (Bowling Green, Ohio) and other team members, such as Ross Burns (Sydney), Marlena Whiting (Amsterdam and Oxford), Tiffany Chezum, and Mohamed Kenawi (Alexandria), are one example of how the archive’s strengths have grown from our combined efforts.
The photo-archive also has strong coverage of sacred sites, especially those with evidence of religious conversion from paganism to Christianity, and in turn to Islam, in Late Antiquity (ca. 250–750), because initial development was part of the Leverhulme Trust Research Project Late Antique Egypt and the Holy Land: Archaeology, History and Religious Change (University of Oxford, PI: Neil McLynn), to make the project’s data and results immediately available. Further expansion of the archive was supported by other sources, such as the British Academy, and the John Fell OUP Research Fund, the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research, and the Dillon Fund of Groton School. We are currently seeking sustained long-term funding.
Many of the monuments are now inaccessible to the West, which makes the Manar al-Athar archive an important long-term resource for research. As a unique, freely-available record of many monuments, it will play a vital role for projects involved in the future reconstruction of damaged and destroyed monuments. Material is labelled in both English and Arabic to facilitate regional use, with the main instructions also available in some other languages.
Monuments were photographed systematically by archaeologists and art historians so that the series of images of a building move from overall views to key details vital to research. The archive is curated by a team of experts who take great care to ensure accurate labelling of photographs. Other team members or contributors include: Miranda Williams, Adrien Duroc-Danner, George Lewis, Emilio Bonfiglio, Agnieszka Szymanska, Sarah Norodom, Andres Reyes, Andrew Wilson, Diana Sayegh, Benjamin Altshuler, and Michael Greenhalgh. As of September 2015, the archive has over 17,000 images online, with many more waiting to be edited and labelled.
You can see Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis and Joseph Greene at Posters on Parade at the ASOR Annual Meeting in November 2015 for more about what Manar al-Athar has to offer.
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